Rugby Australia chairman gets his excuses in early, but his players have a game to win against Wales

Geoff Parkes
Split with Wallabies players, Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan and head coach Eddie Jones.

Split with Wallabies players, Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan and head coach Eddie Jones.

Just two weeks in, the Wallabies have arrived at the World Cup’s ‘last-chance saloon’ far earlier than they and thousands of gold-clad travelling supporters – hardy optimists, the lot of them – might have envisaged.

Such is the eclectic evenness of Pool C, where bonus points actually matter, a win on Sunday against Wales might still not be enough for them to progress. But at least it would keep them in the fight for a ticket to Marseilles.

Lose, and it will be a tortuous fortnight, waiting around for a meaningless final match against Portugal, copping the brunt of post-mortems that will be as voluminous as they will be forthright.

Early excuses

Rugby Australia Chairman, Hamish McLennan, has already laid the groundwork for that fight, getting onto the front foot this week to claim that last Sunday’s loss to Fiji in St Etienne, was the result of 20 years of mismanagement in Australian rugby.

If it is true that it is the victors who get to write history, here was a classic case of the vanquished getting their version in early, to frame and contextualise the criticism McLennan knows will be coming the way of himself and coach Eddie Jones.

All of which feels like premature evacuation. Wales, it must be said, are no world beaters, and recent history between the two nations suggests that a win for either side is entirely plausible.

The last five encounters have been decided 3/2 in Wales’ favour, with the margins, either way, being eight, three, four, one and five points.

Yes, Wales have beaten Fiji, where Australia could not, but everybody knows what a close-run thing that was. As far as form guides go, it’s as unreliable as they come.

Selection considerations

Perhaps the one thing to take from the two Fiji matches is that Warren Gatland will be more settled around his selection than Eddie Jones. Despite Dan Biggar expressing displeasure with his team-mate’s antics just before half-time, the Welsh starting XV, by and large delivered.

With things dropping away on the bench, Wales will be relying on their starters to repeat the dose in Lyon.

Coming off a loss, with injuries in important positions, it is Jones who will be tempted to tweak. Does Matt Philip’s work-rate earn him a start? Will Andrew Kellaway’s compelling mix of reliability and creativity add more to the Wallabies’ back three?

Promising fly-half, Carter Gordon, copped a physical battering against Fiji, and it was his moment of indecisiveness that opened the door for Josua Tuisova to score a crucial try just after half-time.

But without the same heavy artillery coming Gordon’s way in the defensive channel, it feels like Wales is a better match-up for his running and distribution talents.

At least this week, everyone will be spared the shenanigans around Taniela Tupou and Will Skelton being given until just before kick-off to determine their availability, when they were clearly never going to play, no matter what.

With those two cats now well and truly out of the bag, and those kinds of games better left to a real expert – let’s say, Rassie Erasmus – everyone is free to focus on the real matters at hand.

Breakdown battle

One of those areas is the breakdown, where Wales’ Jac Morgan will be salivating at the prospect of repeating Fiji’s demolition job on Australia. In the conventional way that openside flankers are primarily responsible for turnovers at the breakdown, the Wallabies offer Fraser McReight as a counter, but what this World Cup has shown more than anything, is that it is the teams who best apply all 23 players to the defensive and attacking breakdown, who are rewarded.

It is here where Australia has been found wanting. Against Fiji, too frequently, supporting players lost contact with the ball carrier, or were momentarily too slow in their clean-out decision; a big contributor to the 18 penalties which allowed Fiji to maintain territorial and scoreboard pressure throughout.

For their part, referees have been deadly. Too quick on the trigger some would say, to reward the jackaller, nevertheless, the message is clear. Play rugby at your own risk. Or diminish that risk by committing to and winning the attacking cleanout.

Kick-to-kick

There are other avenues to success. Australia has been a willing participant in the mini ‘match within a match’, kick-to-kick contests that have dominated much of this World Cup. So much so that with just three minutes left to salvage a converted try for a draw against Fiji, they chose to invest 90 seconds of that in yet another game of ‘force back’.

The desire to not blink first is understandable. But with nothing less than a win acceptable, Australia will, at some point, need to be bolder than they have been so far.

It’s always easier from the safety of the stands, but where there is space offered, perhaps by a short or misdirected kick by Wales, the Wallabies must seek to exploit it, using pace and angled supporting runners to place the onus back onto the Welsh defence.

Among the many things wrong with this campaign, relying on renowned non-kicker, Marika Koroibete, to win a kicking duel from the backfield, is one of the most confounding.

It is one thing to die a slow, painful death. It is another thing entirely to do so knowing that there are things within your power that you could have used to determine a different outcome.

That is, after all, the quintessential ‘Aussie Spirit’, isn’t it? To “have a crack.” Or, as Eddie might say, to “have a go, mate”. To be a “brave, Aussie battler.”

Chance for on-field leaders to prove their worth

In that respect, the words of the chairman this week felt disconcertingly out of step. Getting one’s excuses in early. Shifting the blame. For something, mind you, that hasn’t even happened yet.

Even if the Wallabies were never going to win this World Cup, the players deserve far better than that. What kind of dad, when their doe-eyed kid presses them on how spectacularly good they were in the rehearsal for the school play, tells them not to bother turning up for performance night? Then blames the grandparents for their lack of talent?

What an opportunity then, for Australia’s on-field leaders to demonstrate the leadership qualities absent at the top. Yes, the side is bereft of seasoned leaders and you can’t invent a few hundred caps overnight, but there are enough players with enough high-level experience to know that if they lead through example, the younger players will lift behind them.

Put simply, that’s the way it has to be. In terms of the cycle of a rugby team, Australia’s coaching group barely know each other. Just one more week, following the Fiji loss, is neither here nor there. It has to come from the players.

As maligned as World Rugby’s rankings often are, if Australia loses on Sunday, there would be nothing unusual about the 9th ranked side bowing out after losses to two sides ranked above them.

That’s the logical brain speaking. But I’m not sure that Australian rugby supporters are ready to accept a pool stage exit. And they sure as heck aren’t ready for the excuses that will accompany it.

It will be tight, but if there’s one nation that does internal chaos and rugby self-loathing as well as Australia, it’s Wales.

For that reason, I’m tipping the Wallabies to sneak a win and live to fight another day.

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